Foreign correspondents of Cambodia civil war hold bittersweet reunion

At peace
Chhang Song, a onetime official, photographs former Associated Press bureau chief Matt Franjola and an ex-prisoner Chum Mey in Phnom Penh. (Tang Chhin sothy, AFP/Getty Images / April 23, 2010)

Journalists gather in Phnom Penh 35 years after the conflict to remember their wild nights and fallen comrades.

The first reunion of foreign correspondents who covered the 1970-75 Cambodian civil war — and perhaps the last, given the advanced ages of many — ended Friday, 40 years after the conflict began. "A bunch of ‘ Jurassic Park' journos," one reporter said. "'Hurt Locker' meets ‘Animal House,'" another said.
The self-deprecating humor belied a period that was deceptively deadly for journalists. Although the Cambodia war received far less attention than its counterpart in neighboring Vietnam, 36 correspondents working for foreign news operations were killed or reported missing during the conflict, compared with 33 in Vietnam, according to the Associated Press.
The toll included nine ambushed and killed by the Khmer Rouge on a single day in May 1970.
"It was wonderful to get together," said Chhang Song, the last information minister in the government overthrown by the Khmer Rouge. "Happy and bittersweet. People cried recalling their old colleagues who died."

Before he became information minister, Song, who helped organize this week's event in the capital, Phnom Penh, worked for military spokesman Col. Am Rong. That's a name that still causes great mirth among the reporters. The briefings were rather vague in those years, in part because the military spokesmen often had little idea what was really going on in the field. That forced correspondents to head down dangerous roads to find out for themselves, said James Pringle, a former correspondent for Reuters, Newsweek and the Sunday Times of London.

The two dozen or so journalists who attended this week's three-day conclave, most now in their 60s and 70s, traveled from London; New York; Bangkok, Thailand; and Sydney, Australia; among other places, with some returning to the country for the first time since they left in a hurry in 1975, as documented in the 1984 film "The Killing Fields."

For many correspondents working during that period, evenings were spent knocking back stiff drinks around the pool of the colonial Le Royal hotel or frequenting Phnom Penh's opium dens to unwind.

Releasing stress was often de rigueur, given that the front lines in the war were even more vague than in Vietnam, the rules of engagement less defined, and there were no U.S. helicopters to extract distressed reporters from harm's way.

Of the 36 international and Cambodian journalists, photographers and cameramen killed or missing during the period — not counting an untold number of Cambodian freelancers killed by the Khmer Rouge after 1975 — 25 perished in the first six months of combat between Khmer Rouge communists and the government's U.S.-backed forces.

Yet for those covering the conflict, the charm of Phnom Penh, known then as the "pearl" of Southeast Asia, made this smaller conflict the preferred beat of many hardened correspondents who split their time between the Cambodian and Vietnamese wars.

Many who lived had close calls.

"I looked up and could see the bombs falling, and I thought, OK, adios, but they ended up 200 meters beyond me," said Jeff Williams, who worked for the Associated Press and later CBS.

At the time of the 1970 right-wing coup that ousted Norodom Sihanouk as head of state and led to the civil war, U.S. journalists were barred from Cambodia. Williams sneaked into the country posing as a professor and became the only American to cover the overthrow, well before the days of satellite phones and near-instant communication.

"I have an exclusive, and I can't get it out," Williams said. "It took two days to get it out."

With telephones and other communication shut down, he eventually arranged for a car to meet him at the border and ferry the film and copy back to a newsroom.

This week actor George Hamilton joined the journalists to pay homage to his childhood friend Sean Flynn; the photojournalist, son of Hollywood icon Errol Flynn, was captured and killed in Cambodia. And Fanny Ferrato and Katherine Holden, the daughters of Philip Jones Griffiths, came to spread their father's ashes. The legendary photographer died of cancer in 2008.

In the 1970s, the correspondents' indulgence after sundown contrasted with their anxiety during the day. After a dip in the pool and a meal at one of the city's finer French restaurants, the journalists sometimes capped their evenings with a visit to Madame Chantal's opium den, where diplomats and some of the local elite also congregated, Pringle said

"We would take off our clothes and put on a sarong, and we would just lie there and chat," he recalled. "After you had a pipe, the tension would abate and the B-52 strikes that you'd hear in the distance would grow fainter and fainter."
Brady is a special correspondent.


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